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ROME WASN’T BUILT IN A DAY (THE SWEET SOUNDS OF AN ILLNOIS SUMMER!)

By Nic.Korte

"#%## $&#-&$#%," old Mel said to me, "Rome wasn't built in a day." I had just embarked on my summer career (all through high school) of helping "make hay" on Illinois farms. Having been admonished by my mother to work hard, I guess Mel thought I was overdoing it.

We went to the rusty old well to pump some cool water for a drink. With the tractor engine off, it was quiet...except for the birds—especially the sweet call of the Eastern Meadowlark.

I am a bit melancholy as I write this because I recently returned to my home town for a funeral. A lot has changed. My hometown is two and a half times larger. Old Mel's farm is now a subdivision. And the grassland birds of my youth, the Meadowlarks, Bobwhite Quail, and Dickcissels...well, they aren't so easy to find anymore.
It doesn’t matter where you are, birds of the grasslands and prairies are declining everywhere—as is true for Colorado’s Bobolinks, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Western Meadowlarks. (All but the latter are classified as Common Birds in Steep Decline by Partners In Flight: (http://rmbo.org/pifassessment/Database.aspx).

(Western Meadowlark by Jackson Trappett)

Compared to the steeply-declining Eastern Meadowlark, our Western Meadowlark is doing all right, even though its population has also generally declined for the past 50 years.

(Bobolink-photo from Routt County)

Much of the decline is a result of population increase. Where is it easiest to put a subdivision? On the flat former prairie. Not on hillsides or rocky soils.

Some of the decline is cultural. Truly, the sound of an Illinois summer, as I was reminded on my recent visit, is the sound of a mower. While at my parents’ house, I decided to walk around the nearby pond and baseball fields where there were some trees and adjacent farmland. Well, both areas were being mowed.
So, I thought I’d walk the other way, down a nearby hill to the City Park. Immediately, I noticed some birds moving along the hillside as I walked down the road. I stopped to watch—only to have a large tractor appear behind me at the top of the hill. I walked to the other side of the road to let the tractor pass. But it stopped. A mechanical arm extended—with a mower—and proceeded to mow down all of the vegetation along the steep hillside.

At the City Park, they weren’t mowing. They must have done the job day before. There was a small stream. They had mowed so close to the surface, that the mower had ripped into the soil on the streambank—not only removing any potential riparian habitat, but exposing the soil to erosion as well.

This all reminded me of another farmer I had worked for besides old Mel. This farmer had some land in the Conservation Reserve Program. He was a hard-worker with a prosperous farm...known for a modern milking barn. He was of German extract as is nearly everyone from my hometown area. He was so neat and orderly; he was almost a caricature of how precise and neat Germans are supposed to be.  That fallow land bothered him. His farm didn't look neat because of that field. He wasn't supposed to cut it--after all, he was being paid by the government not to farm it. What did he do? Well one evening while I was working for him. He said, “Let’s go out and mow it at dusk. There aren't many people on the road and no one will see us.” So we did. We mowed it all down so his farm would look neat. I didn’t know then, what I know now. The countrywide decline of grassland birds was part of this farmer’s desire to be “neat.”

(Grasshopper Sparrows can be found on Colorado's Eastern Plains)

The great conservationist Aldo Leopold suggested many years ago that a key to saving our wildlife was saving fence line and streamside habitat. Obviously, his suggestion not to plow one more row and leave a border of native plants mostly fell on deaf ears where I grew up. 

When Old Mel said, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he could have been referring to the former prairie we were standing on. Prairie soils are incredibly productive for agriculture. It is safe to say that it is a “waste” to use them for houses. But, it ought to be a crime to let them wash away. It is said that “it takes a 1000 years to build one inch of topsoil,”—a generalization to be sure. Nonetheless, those Illinois prairie soils did take thousands of years to form. The associated wildlife, such as the birds, took equally as long. We are squandering this heritage. 

Increasingly, our wildlife can only be saved by what happens on private land. We have to save whatever we can. I like the exhortation of one prominent politician who says the answer is "restraint." We don't have to plant or build on every acre of grassland. If we restrain ourselves we can preserve what is left and start to restore other areas. Won't that take too long? Well, that isn't an excuse, “Rome wasn't built in a day.”
 

This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to audubongv@gmail.com. [To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see our website at audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook!]

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